There is no escape from our expectations. Every public figure; every significant relationship; every organization and individual has goals to achieve – all of us have some hope that certain things will happen. And each one of us has a unique understanding of how things should happen. Our expectations keep us motivated and engaged; it’s how we hold one another accountable. They are also serve to disappoint and discourage.
We expect politicians to work for the collective good and interest of the municipalities, regions and nations whom they represent. Authority figures are expected to uphold the law – and citizens are expected to obey. We expect teachers to serve the needs of their students – and students to be respectful of their teachers. Schools expect loyalty (and money) from their graduates; We are asked to cheer harder for “the home team” – stand for the anthem, honour the flag, and defend the truth as it is told by our fellow citizens, our co-religionists, our neighbours, allies and friends.
Based on recent experience and the series of unfortunate events that have made the news recently, it would be easy to argue that we should lower our expectations where public figures are concerned – to save ourselves from constant disappointment…there is not much optimism in us lately, either politically, economically, or in matters of faith, and that is the fault of our expectations.
It is easy to believe that things will “always get better” – a little optimism is good for the soul – but to demand improvement; to expect limitless expansion; to imagine and endless cycle of wonderful is ours by divine right – that’s not optimism, that’s foolishness. History tells a different tale – a cycle of success and failure of nations, markets and even the importance of religion in society is easy to discern – yet we have our expectations, don’t we.
The history of God’s people that is revealed by Scripture reveals a similar sort of cycle. The nation prospers; faith falls away. The nation suffers, and faith is renewed. Always, more is hoped for – and always, the future holds the promise of perfection.
Early in Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus gathers his disciples on the beach, there is a feeling of expectation in the air once again. Israel has been consumed by Roman expansion and occupation. The stirrings of religious revival are there – in the wilderness, with characters like John Baptizing and preaching and stirring up the slumbering expectations of the people. Jesus makes his entrance under John’s leadership, but soon takes a spot in the front lines of this movement. And his first act is to gather his disciples together, apart from the crowds (though the crowds seemed to find them eventually) and reset their expectations.
The secular and the sacred are never far removed in peoples minds. Even in a culture as secular as ours, we hold ideas and habits that speak to our deep yearning for something holy – something “Spiritual” – and to begin their apprenticeship in this renewal movement with Jesus, those early disciples needed to ‘relearn’ some things. Their expectations of how God works and who it is that God calls blessed, for example, must be reconsidered.
Thus the opening statements in what we know as the sermon on the mount help to realign those expectations in a world where “blessed” had come to mean “powerful” or “wealthy” or “successful”. Jesus might have been offering them a pattern of behaviour, but I think he was also trying to remind them that the religious expectations that they had grown up with had been twisted by human habits. Jesus, by his words and actions, will not just realign, but defy the expectations of people – religious or secular – before his arrest and after his resurrection. That’s what Jesus does.
So it is not really a surprise that, two thousand years on, we find our expectations bent out of shape again. The church has endured corrective measures – division, reformation, renewal movements and the like – but still we are surprised by a lack of enthusiasm or a fall from public favour that is tied directly to the churches understanding of itself.
“What does the church require of you?” is the question that keeps curious people from further involvement – and the churches requirements, while simple enough (in our minds) are usually things that serve the churches interest; we require your devotion – your commitment – your energy – your money. And, of course, this commitment should cross generations – bring your children and your children’s children. Our future is only assured if people meet these expectations of membership, faithfulness, and exclusive devotion to the cause.
Churches / denomination have been struggling to repackage these expectations – to make them palatable for those who have no history with the institution – it’s not working, in case you hadn’t noticed. Our expectations hinder us, because they can’t help but pull us away from the vision that Jesus offered as the baseline for those who would follow him in seeking God’s rule in their lives and in the wider world; the lost – the lonely – the curious – the kind; these are the people who are on ‘the right track’…they shall see God, receive mercy, be called Blessed.
Our expectations are not evil – but they are not pushing us forward. They leave aside notions of justice and mercy – they abandon love in favour of security, and in time we forget that not only has God asked us to seek mercy and justice, but God has promised us the security that we so eagerly seek. It won’t be found in our particular success, whether as a nation, or a culture, nor even as a branch of the Christian Church – the security offered by God is found in the humble submission to the expectation of God. To do justice, and love kindness and walk humbly with God. This was the path that Jesus chose – these are the expectations Jesus outlines for those who would follow him – in these simple instructions, we might find all our expectations fully met, and all for God’s glory.